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My Top 5 Desert Island Leadership Books

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I was recently asked by Shepherd Books to select my Top 5 books on leadership. There are probably as many leadership books sold per minute as Fairtrade bananas, and in my view most of them fail because they are just not practical enough to help. So here is a round-up of the only ones I think you really need to bother with (assuming, of course, that you have already read Leadersmithing!).

The Prince

I first read Machiavelli’s The Prince on my MBA and it is a brilliant wake-up call for leaders. He was vilified for writing it, because he skipped the customary hand-wringing about virtue and morality to focus on what really works. Some of it sounds brutal to the modern ear, but the key leadership lesson it taught me is that, for leaders, perception is more influential than reality. The more people you lead, the less they will be able to get close enough to you to understand your every thought and intention. So most followers guess, based on the distant messages they pick up through the grapevine and through any visible signals your behaviour provides. Machiavelli would not be surprised by fake news: control perception, and you control reality.

Emotional Intelligence

A necessary corrective to Machiavelli is Daniel Goleman’s classic on Emotional Intelligence. Leadership is always a balance between being right and being liked, but you can be both if you have excellent EQ. Goleman sets out the theory, before introducing a practical approach to increasing your emotional competence. The model he developed, which is at the heart of the EQ psychometrics he inspired, starts with self-awareness and your ability to read others, then considers your ability to manage yourself, and your ability to manage others in relationship. It is this last set of competencies that is so vital for delivering through others as a leader, as excellence in this sphere correlates with better organizational performance through increased discretionary effort and enhanced motivation.

Who Really Matters

Art Kleiner’s Core Group Theory was an aha moment for me, because it teaches senior leaders how to use their power well. The theory explains how top leaders act on their organisations like a magnet on iron filings: the slightest clue or cue they give ripples out, and is amplified and copied by everyone that follows them. This makes it crucial that leaders are careful about even the smallest behavioural choice they make: their priorities, who they pay attention to, the jokes they make – all of these will be seen as role model behaviours and replicated by those trying to impress. There is no such thing as off-stage for a leader.

The Enchiridion

Epictetus is the Stoic who inspired the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism is the intellectual origin of cognitive behavioural therapy and a way for leaders to train themselves to focus on the things they can change, rather than breaking their hearts over things over which they have no control. The Enchiridion has the virtue of being much shorter than Aurelius’ Meditations, and contains pithy observations and advice like ‘it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgment concerning them,’ and ‘don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.’ Leaders need to be good at detachment, and Stoicism can provide valuable tools to help.

Mr Happy

The leader’s most important job is to set the right culture for their organization. People will copy what you do, not what you say. This simple little book shows you the truth of that: When Mr Miserable comes to stay, Mr Happy doesn’t give him pep talks. He just keeps on being happy until Mr Miserable is too. As a leader, you need to relentlessly role model the behaviour you want, until it finally catches on.

What would your Top 5 be?

Leadersmithing TEDx

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Here is my script for the TEDx I gave about Leadersmithing on 11 March 2017. You can also watch it here.

Hello. You’re probably wondering what’s with the pearls. Well, pearls have a dirty secret, and I’m here to tell you about it. It’s all about the pearls. So if you only remember 1 thing about this talk, remember the pearls.

Pearls are associated with such glamour, aren’t they? I inherited my first set, from a great grandmother who had been brought up at Hampton Court Palace. My second set were from Hatton Garden, given to me by my boyfriend when we worked next door at Deloitte Consulting. I bought my third set in Beijing when I took our Ashridge MBA students out there on a study trip.

But their glamour is hard-won. They have grit in their hearts. Their beauty and lustre is the result of a defence mechanism, designed to protect the oyster against a threatening irritant. I’m from Scotland, and in Scotland they don’t say ‘pearls’: they say ‘perils.’ And perils is exactly what the beauty of a pearl is bearing witness to – it owes its very existence to the oyster being in peril. Read More

What is morality if the future is known?

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In the movie Arrival a linguist learning an alien language gains access to a consciousness that knows the future. Unlike our consciousness, which runs from cause to effect and is sequential, theirs can see the whole arc of time simultaneously.Their life is about discerning purpose and enacting events, while ours is about discerning good outcomes and deploying our free will and volition to those ends.

In Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, on which the screenplay is based, this is explained theoretically with reference to Fermat’s principle of least time. This states that the path taken by a ray between two given points is the path that can be traversed in the least time. Lurking behind this idea is the realisation that nature has an ability to test alternative paths: a ray of sunlight must know its destination in order to choose the optimal route. Chiang has his protagonist muse about the nature of free will in such a scheme: the virtue would not be in selecting the right actions, but in duly performing already known actions, in order that the future occurs as it should. It’s a bit like an actor respecting Shakespeare enough not to improvise one of his soliloquies. Read More

Robot Dread

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I sense a morbid fear behind our catastrophizing about androids, which I reckon is to do with a loss of autonomy. It’s true that for periods in history tribes and people have assumed they have no autonomy, life being driven by the fates or by a predetermined design or creator, so this could be a particularly modern malady in an era that luxuriates in free will. But concern about the creep of cyborgism through the increasing use of technology in and around our bodies seems to produce a frisson of existential dread that I have been struggling to diagnose. Technology has always attracted its naysayers, from the early saboteurs to the Luddites and the Swing Rioters, and all the movements that opposed the Industrial Revolution, but this feels less about livelihoods and more about personhood. Read More

Robots don’t have childhoods

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I’m sitting on the beach at North Berwick, with clear views out to the Bass Rock and May Isle, watching the children play. My daughter digs a deep hole, then runs off to find hermit crabs in the rock pools. Nearby, a young boy is buried up to the neck while his sister decorates his sarcophagus with shells. On the shore, a toddler stands transfixed by a washed-up jellyfish, while two older girls struggle to manipulate a boat in the shallows, trying to avoid the splashing boys playing swim-tig.

We’re under the benign shadow of the North Berwick Law, where there’s a bronze-age hill fort, so it’s likely this holiday postcard scene has not changed much since this part of Scotland was first settled, thousands of years ago, when those children dug holes, found crabs, and frolicked in the sea. I felt a wave of such sadness, thinking forward in time. Will this beach still play host to the children of the far distant future, or will we have designed out childhood by then? Robots don’t have childhoods because they don’t need them. Humans still do, but I wonder how much time you’ve spent trying to figure out why?

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A Year of Universal Basic Income?

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Following the first cases of Covid-19 in the UK in January and February, lockdown was announced on the evening on Monday 23 March. Since then, citizens have been working from home, except for keyworkers, or have been laid off or furloughed under the government’s Job Retention Scheme. As at 12 May, 7.5 million jobs have been furloughed, and the British Chamber of Commerce reported that 71% of businesses surveyed by them had furloughed some staff. This means that the UK government are currently paying the wage bill for about a quarter of all UK employees. The scheme will be gradually phased out, with some part-time working and employer contributions, finally ending in October.

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How to Budge Up

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The head-hunter Joanna Moriarty has a wonderful turn of phrase. She says it’s great that men are appointing women to senior roles, but now that women have finally made it into the boardroom, she reckons the men still need to ‘budge up’ to accommodate them. I know quite a few men who struggle with this, because it seems that whatever they do it’s never quite right. It either feels patronising, or it’s not supportive enough. And it’s in everyone’s interests that women perform well, particularly in the boardroom, not just in service of better results but also to be role models for those coming up behind them. So how might men budge up, exactly? Here are 7 golden rules:

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Character and Confidence

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The FT’s Sarah O’Connor unleashed a bit of a storm when she wrote recently that teaching state-school kids firm handshakes was patronising, and that ‘character education’ had no place in the national curriculum. I should like to contest this both as the Chairman of Gordonstoun school, which invented character education, and as a state-school educated Scot who was lucky enough to attend Lucie Clayton Finishing School in Kensington one summer. Read More

Be more unicorn

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You can’t avoid the unicorns, if you go into any gift shop these days. They’re everywhere – key-rings, handbags, fairy-lights; you can even buy sequinned t-shirts that say ‘be more unicorn’ on the front. It’s funny how much appeal this mythical beast has.

In Scotland, where it’s the national animal, Stirling Castle has gone unicorn-mad. In the Queen’s Inner Hall, you’ll find seven hand-woven unicorn tapestries hanging on the walls. They’re based on the famous Hunt of the Unicorn series from the 1500s, which are now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Re-creating them in Stirling was quite a project, costing £2million and taking 13 years. The panels show a unicorn being hunted, tamed by a virgin, killed, then appearing alive again in captivity. This narrative is assumed to be an allegorical interpretation of the life of Christ, although no-one really knows what’s going on in this story. Read More